by Marshall Bowden
Music streaming services like Spotify have become the go-to for many music fans, even those who listen to music a lot. But bottom line, you need to own copies of the music you consider essential in whatever format you prefer, or your ability to hear it on demand might disappear overnight.
A few weeks ago I read an article on SoulTracks.com that talked about finding out that a specific album, one that you may even have ‘saved’ to your library, is no longer available on Spotify (or another streaming music service). In it, the author described his experience of having tracks he had located on Spotify and added to his playlist suddenly disappear from the streaming service. No notice. No explanation.
But, you argue, these things happen fairly infrequently, and I am willing to concede that, but the letdown can be so unexpected and random that it seems like a flaw that could actually make streaming seem less attractive to a certain percentage of music fans. This is an issue that, unless it becomes widespread, is unlikely to poke a hole in streaming music’s business model. But for what are sometimes referred to as ‘deep’ music fans, it’s a real issue.
I, like a lot of music fans, was shocked by the death of postpunk guitarist Andy Gill. Gill was a member of the British band Gang of Four. Gang of Four were pretty popular among punk/new wave/postpunk/dance crowd during the 1980s and early ’90s.
But when I opened my Spotify app and searched for Gang of Four I discovered what countless other fans of the band must have realized in the few days following Gill’s death: none of the band’s first three releases were available for streaming on Spotify. Entertainment! Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free, albums that contain nearly all of the band’s most well known and popular songs, were simply not there.
No “I Found That Essence Rare.” No “Damaged Goods.” No “He’d Send In The Army” nor “I Love A Man In A Uniform.”
The first album available is 1984’s “Hard” by which time the group had lost half its four original members. That’s not to say their music wasn’t any good, it’s just an amazing example of a band’s best work not being available on a streaming platform. In this instance it was Spotify, but it could easily be Apple or Amazon or Tidal or Deezer.
It should be noted that in the time between Gill’s death and now, all of the band’s releases have again become available on Spotify. So, what happened?
According to this Reddit thread it happened around mid-2019 that these titles were removed from the service and it appears to only have affected the U.S. and Canada, where Warner is the owner, as opposed to the rest of the world, where EMI owns rights.
One has only to consider the various agreements and contracts between artists and labels large and small, as well as various legal considerations (a newly independent U.K. for example), political shifts, and other factors to see that this kind of thing happens regularly. Mostly it’s true that the smaller, independent releases of recordings that have niche audiences are most affected by this.
As Chris Rizik says in the SoulTracks article: “Music licenses expire. Publishers get sold. Artists change representatives. Lots of things can get in the way.”
Sometimes these things are the result of an oversight and they may be remedied fairly quickly. But as you can see from my Gang of Four example, five or six months can go by with no sign of change on the horizon.
Because my main concern is always with the ability of artists to get their music to those fans in the format and presentation that they want, I have to remind people that the best way to make sure you will always be able to hear the music you want to hear is simply to buy it.
You can buy music on vinyl, CDs, cassettes, or you can download MP3 or other files. Even though a digital download isn’t a physical format per se, it must be stored on a hard drive or it can be converted to a flash drive or even to an audio CD playable on any available CD drive.
Vinyl has staged a comeback and is arguably the most elegant music format, offering not only great sound but also the best archival information (personnel, credits, liner notes) and artwork in the form of the album cover. But don’t be in a hurry to get rid of your CDs yet. First, they are still excellent compact storage for music. You can store an enormous amount of music on discs and they are still not heavy or difficult to move. They are also fairly durable compared to records.
Second, the market for CDs will return and be strong in the near future. After the collapse of the record market in the 1990s many people were eager to sell their vinyl collections while they could still bring in some money. Prices were headed downward as it seemed that fewer people were interested in vinyl. Second-hand record shops closed in droves.
But since 2010 vinyl has been on an upswing, with prices recovering a bit and more interest than ever on records in classic rock and jazz genres. Also, they are very popular with K-Pop fans, though mainly as a way of demonstrating one’s status as a stan and as collector’s items. In that regard, they are more like collectible action figures or even the old vinyl picture discs because they’re more about being a fan than the music itself.
CDs and digital files are easiest to download to other devices, including hard drives, phones, tablets, and laptops. I used to have a large selection of music files on my computer so that I could listen to my favorite music wherever I might find myself. Now I don’t do that because it’s so much easier to stream what I want to hear at the time I think of it.
But if that music should disappear from streaming services? I have a backup or two available. I have a large number of CDs from years of shopping used record stores, street fairs, the internet, and years of writing and reviewing music for various outlets. A few years ago I started a project to convert many of them to MP3 files and save them to a huge hard drive. I sold some of the CDs off, but the project never got that far due to lack of time, and now I don’t really feel compelled to sell most of my CDs as I once thought I would.
One reason is that I regularly see certain cases where a CD is currently fetching a better price than a vinyl copy of the same recording tells me that the market is far from over. So if I thought I might want to convert CDs to MP3s and sell a lot of them off, there will be a market in the future.
If you want to own copies of your favorite music that will be around as long as we have the platform (turntables, CD players/recorders, cassette players/recorders) to play it, YOU HAVE TO BUY IT. Owning the music is more trouble because you also have to be sure that you have the means to play it in whatever format you have. This is often more difficult than it sounds. For example, CD and writable CD drives are no longer standard with computers. You need an external drive or standalone player in order to listen to burn CDs. You need a cassette recorder in order to play or record cassettes.
If you’ve been listening to and collecting music for a long time and through one or more changes in platform, you probably have a lot of different formats and that can be difficult to manage, but it’s better to have music that was important enough for you to pay for at some point in a format that can’t go away. Streaming is not that format.
For me streaming music is ideal for keeping up with new music, hearing something right away while doing research, or music on the go. It isn’t my go-to for relaxing and listening at home. Just take my advice and lock down your favorite stuff. Just in case that zombie apocalypse really happens.